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The Gauntlet: The Oklahoma City Thunder’s race to the 2018 NBA playoffs.

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Eleven winning teams stand between the Thunder and the playoffs. Follow this series for updates in the standings.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Atlanta Hawks
“Just win, baby.”
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder find themselves facing 11 straight games against +500 opponents and the toughest remaining SOS (strength of schedule) to finish out the season. Only 4.5 games separate the #3 and #10 seeds in the Western Conference and the Thunder hold the #4 spot by just a 12 game margin. With every game possibly determining the difference between home court advantage in first round or missing the playoffs altogether, there is no margin for error.

Stick with Welcome to Loud City for updates on the standings after every Thunder game from now until the end of the season.

Current NBA Western Conference Standings

nba.com

Recent Game Results

Thursday, 3/15/18 - Portland extended their winning streak to 11 games in 113-105 victory over a short-handed Cavalier squad. LeBron James led all scoring with 35 pts, but it wasn’t enough against a balanced Trail Blazer attack that seized control of the game in second quarter after an early see-saw battle. After Damian Lillard’s 2-point jump shot gave the Blazers a 12 point lead with just under 5 minutes remaining, the Cavs went on a 12 to 5 run to cut the lead to 5 with just over a minute and a half remaining, but a wide open miss from 3 by Jordan Clarkson with 1:06 remaining followed by a rare miss on make-able LeBron James finger-roll failed to cut the lead to a single possession and allowed Lillard to seal the win at the free throw line.

The win added a 12 game and gives the Trail Blazers a full 2 game lead over #4 seed OKC with 14 games remaining on their schedule.

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As expected, the Utah Jazz made relatively short work of the woeful Phoenix Suns, 116-88. After a slow start which saw the Jazz lose the first quarter 23 to 20, the Suns were able to keep it close until Utah’s Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell caught fire with 2 minutes remaining in the first half and staked the Jazz to a 13 pt cushion going into intermission. Once Mitchell, who led all scorers with 23 points, got rolling, the Jazz never looked back and finished the game running away holding Phoenix marksman Devon Booker to only 12 points on 3 for 18 shooting.

The win jumped the Jazz up a notch in the standings to #7.

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The Denver Nuggets kept their playoff hopes alive with a 120-113 win over the Detroit Pistons. Denver’s Jamal Murray matched Detroit’s Blake Griffin’s 26 points for scoring honors for the game, but ultimately, the Denver bench outscoring the Piston’s reserves 46 to 36 sealed the win for the home team.

Even though the Nuggets record is now even with the Clippers, the win didn’t move Denver up to the #9 spot because the Clippers have already won that season series.

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Speaking of the Clippers, they blew a 12 point lead and dropped a heart-breaker, 101-96, at the Toyota Center in Houston. After taking a 5 point lead into the locker room at halftime, the Clippers built that into a 12 point margin just 5 minutes into the 3rd quarter before the wheels come off. After Chris Paul knocked down 2 FT’s with under a second remaining in 3rd, the Clippers 12 pt lead had turned into a 4 pt hole they could never quite climb out of. Doc Rivers’ boy Austin, scored 20 points, 18 in the second half, and made things interesting after cutting the Rockets lead to 2 on a driving lay-up with just 53 seconds remaining, but the Clippers were unable to capitalize and lost by 5.

“WHERE THE HELL WAS THE HELP D?!?”
(sorry Melo, I just couldn’t help myself)

The loss proved costly for the Clippers who dropped 2 spots from #7 and in the playoff hunt, to #9 and out. That’s all it takes to blow a season now, one mis-step. Not saying the Clippers’ season is over, but now they face a fresh OKC team in the second game of a road back to back tonight. Lose that one and the Clippers drop 3 spots as the Nuggets take over the #9 spot without lifting a finger.

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In the most intriguing match-up of the night, the San Antonio Spurs scored only 38 points in the second half but relied on a tough defensive game plan to turn a 2 point halftime lead into a huge 5 point home win over the fifth seeded New Orleans Pelicans.

After taking the lead just minutes into the game, the Spurs never trailed again and were even able to expand their lead to a 15 point margin with 5 12 minutes remaining in the first half. However, the Pels weren’t ready to give up and closed the 2nd quarter on a 19 to 6 run to cut the Spurs lead to 2.

The Spurs grabbed a six-point lead with just under 6 minutes remaining when LaMarcus Aldridge converted an old-fashioned three-point play after drawing Pelican star Anthony Davis’ 5th foul on a lay-up.

In a 3 point game with 6 minutes left, the Spurs Kyle Anderson drove the paint and drew Davis in and then hit Aldridge, who had slipped between Davis and the rim, with a pinpoint pocket pass. Davis, already beaten badly on the play, forced a bad position and couldn’t be as aggressive the rest of the way. The 5th year Kentucky All-Star’s poor decision was all the Spurs needed to finish the Pels off as Aldridge drew Davis into making another silly defensive mistake just minutes later and fouling out of the game.

The Pelicans had cut the Spurs lead to one when Davis fouled out with two minutes remaining and New Orleans was only able to muster 3 points during his absence.

The win moved the Spurs up to #8 but their lack of scoring in the second half could have proven disastrous. Had the Spurs lost, they would have dropped to #10. Their record would have been the same as Denver and the series tied between the two at 2 games a piece, but the Nuggets currently have a better conference record. That’s the 4th tie-breaker for teams with equal records and just another indication of just how close the Western Conference race is right now.

The loss dropped the Pelicans from #5 to #6.

The Upcoming Thunder Tri-fecta

Friday, 3/16 - Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers are playing the second game of a back to back while the Thunder are coming off 2 days rest. In last night’s game against the Rockets the Clipper starters averaged over 37 minutes court time. The Thunder starters need to play well and the Thunder bench needs to hold serve to force Doc Rivers to keep his starters and their tired legs on the floor.

The Thunder and Clippers are both paint warriors and winning the rebounding and second chance point battles will be key.

Sunday, 3/18 - Toronto Raptors

The Raptors are on a ten-game winning streak and threatening to run away with the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference. One of the Thunder’s signature wins of the season came against the Raptors on 12/27 but a few things have changed since then. First, the Thunder are without Andre Roberson, and second, the Raptors have changed DeMar Derozan’s focus away from the long two to wide-open 3’s and the result has been pretty remarkable.

At the time of the December 19th meeting the Raptors were 20 and 8 and winning a very respectable 71.4% of their games. Since the coaches and management sat with Derozan they have run off 31 wins in their last 40 games or 77.5%.

Obviously the Raptors are peaking and if the Thunder pull this game out it would most definitely be their best win of the year.

Tuesday, 3/20 - Boston Celtics

The Celtics are a beat up basketball team right now. Marcus Smart will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ligament in his right thumb, Kyrie Irving is nursing a sore knee and the team hopes he will be 100% by playoff time, Al Horford is battling the flu, and the team’s second leading scorer, Jaylen Brown, could be out the rest of this month in the league’s concussion protocol.

This may be a prime opportunity for the Thunder to avenge an early season home loss to the Celtics, a game the Thunder led by 18 at halftime, but the Thunder must not take this Boston team lightly. In their two recent losses with injuries piling up, the Celtic kept both close, losing by a combined 3 points against +500 competition.

Prediction

The Thunder need to win 2 of these 3 games and I don’t care how. Rhino butt ugly wins will be just as pretty as easy wins from here on out. Al Davis, the ex-owner, -head coach, and former Commisioner of the old AFL was/is famous for a motto that every Thunder player and fan should embrace for the rest of this season and throughout the playoffs....

“Just win, baby.”

Nothing else matters from now on.